Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

“Dream Other Dreams, and Better”

— Satan in Mark Twain’s Mysterious Stranger


I’ve been writing all my life — fiction, poetry, book reviews, essays, the (so far) lone book.  Shaping worlds of my own and opining on the worlds of others kept me sane, or at least distracted me, whenever problems in real life grew so large that sleep became impossible.  At the same time, this was not therapy.  I wrote for publication and was lucky and persistent enough to push a decent fraction of the work out into the world.

Twice only in my four decades of writing was I induced to write fanfiction.  I didn’t venture into those creatively murky waters because I was a fan.  On the contrary, the urge arose from my profound dissatisfaction with the particular original sources.  In the first case, the (justly famous) author eventually extended the trilogy that had engaged me deeply, yet had left me so oddly unfulfilled.  She crafted three sequels that were so viscerally right — and so beautiful — that my take became redundant.  In the second case, I wrote the fanfiction when I still felt angry and bereft after I had written a lengthy critique of the original.  Intrigued by the fanfic forums, I posted on several and there I got to observe the phenomenon in all its bizarre glory.

Most contemporary Americans date fanfiction since its Star Trek beginnings, but the activity started ever since language-wielding humans gathered around their campfires.  Because ancient texts were transmitted orally, they are palimpsests created by grandmothers and bards, the plots and characters constantly borrowed and modified to suit the particular audience.  Many respectable artworks are de facto fanfic of works whose copyright has expired (Milton’s Paradise Lost and Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead come to mind, as does West Side Story – not to speak of Romeo and Juliet itself).

Fanfiction and fanart are both artistic enterprises and social outlets.  When I posted my story, I was only aware of the former aspect.  When I realized the extent of the latter, I felt like Richard Burton wandering through Mecca in disguise: an infidel, a farang anthropologist watching the rituals of aliens.  Each fandom, an accretion around the kernel of its inspiration, combines the custom-bound outlook of an insular tribe with the hothouse atmosphere of a girls’ boarding school.  Fanfic writers and readers get as immersed and vested in their communities as do players of World of Warcraft.

The artistic level of most fanfic is lamentable.  But then, so is most of published fiction, especially the bloated sequels increasingly expected by fantasy and SF editors, the cynical commissioned works in franchises and the copycat clones in the various specialized genres — mystery, romance, westerns.  Good fanfic is on par with published work.  Fanfiction is the contemporary equivalent of storytelling, the return of mythmaking to collective ownership, the empowering of the fans (especially female fans, who write an estimated 98% of fanfiction) from passive consumers into transgressive creators, subversive Liliths rather than subservient Eves.

The opinions of published writers on fanfiction range across the spectrum but most don’t consider it a serious competitor.  Many are flattered if they evoke fanfiction from their readers, the sign of having attained iconic status.  Yet the phrases that encapsulate their views about fanfiction show fundamental contempt for the undertaking: “the intellectual equivalent of playing with dolls” and “a safe sandbox”.  Part of the condescension undoubtedly comes from the fact that fanfiction authors do this for love or pleasure and are not paid for their labors.  It says something about today’s mindset that professional authors who also write fanfiction almost invariably attempt to hide this fact, whereas authors who write commissioned works (officially sanctioned fanfiction) admit it freely.  Nevertheless, these phrases pinpoint two serious drawbacks of fanfiction.

The first puts fanfiction in a permanent defensive mode and this is not only because of its shaky legal status.  In traditional storytelling there was no dominant “truth”, no canon.  All versions of the Border ballads were equal, distinguished only by the skill of the story weaver.  The best survived, the rest sank into the waters of Lethe.  In fanfiction there is a “master”- the creator of the original source.  All fanfiction writers are eternal apprentices even if the beauty and originality of their writing exceeds that of the source.  And because fanfiction is not formally published, it’s all slated for oblivion regardless of its quality.

The second is critical if the fanfic writer is talented.  Inhabiting someone else’s universe is inherently constricting even if the author creates rebellious alternative versions of that universe.  At the same time, the ready-made mythology invites laziness and rewards short-hand.  Using a particular name in a particular fandom is guaranteed to invoke the desired response from readers, so why bother with careful craft?  And the feedback in fanfiction, always positive, creates the potential for emotional addiction, the craving for ever more uncritical admiration.

Fanfiction is here to stay. It fulfills many needs: it grants recognition, gives access to a like-minded community, feeds dreams (or obsessions).  And the Internet is an ideal venue for it.  Too, the publishing world may well change under the overwhelming presence of the new medium.  But if mainstream publications become more receptive to a larger, more informal concept of authorship, it would be better for everyone if all that talent that now spends its creative juices on Xena, Buffy, Harry Potter and the Skywalkers were given motivations to invent original stories.

It may be true, as Dostoyevsky so famously said, that there are only two stories: “Someone goes on a journey” and “A stranger comes to town”.  Yet across eras and cultures, humans have found infinite ways of telling these two stories.  Writing fanfiction is a pleasant and constructive hobby and it can foster loyal friendships.  It takes courage to leave such a cocoon, although it inevitably suffocates what it originally nourished.  But for those who truly want to create, there are whole universes yet to be dreamt and brought forth.

Star Gate

16 Responses to ““Dream Other Dreams, and Better””

  1. Caliban says:

    Interesting and well said. I have nothing to add… except to express my admiration at your essaying ability. 🙂

  2. r0ck3tsci3ntist says:

    I’d say you’ve got it just about right. Fanficcers might bristle at some of your descriptions while saying the same things amongst each other in the safety of the tribe. But I’ve witnesses the same of published authors.

    I glanced once at a list of “please don’t send us this” posted by an online magazine and the plots they outlined reminded me that people who write are really very similar, whether fan writers of professional, it’s the level of talent that creates the distinctions in either. Forgive me if this is too random. *smile*

  3. Athena says:

    Calvin — Awww! I suspect the essaying ability came from those high school years when every two weeks our teachers would choose a topic and expect a coherent essay within two hours. Compared with that, the Harvard “expository prose” requirement was a piece of cake!

    Kathryn — was that Strange Horizons? Their list is very, very long, which tells you how few truly “original” stories are left to tell! You’re right of course, talent (and, equally important, craft) are the real distinctions.

    For me personally, the “sactioned” commissions are really the worst of both worlds, and their overall quality reflects this.

  4. Caliban says:

    I was fortunately enough to have an English teacher in high school like that — he also taught at a local university–and while it wasn’t timed, we had to write a persuasive essay–not “how you feel” but introduction, body, conclusion–every week or two, on books we were reading. It was a great learning experience. When I went to university, I tested straight out of the writing requirement.

    And one of the most important things that taught me is that, like most skills, learning to write is about practice, practice, practice. In that sense there is nothing inherently wrong about fanfiction, if one can learn from it about language, plot, character. If one can then move on to more original modes of writing, so much the better.

    An alternative to fanfiction is revisionism or re-imaging–such as Gregory Macguire’s “Wicked” (I too have written my share of revisionist poems revolving around the Oz mythology) or your own radical reimagining of the Star Wars mythology. In this sense it moves beyond fanfiction, which is both devotional and narcissistic, to a more critical eye.

  5. Athena says:

    Yes, these teachers were the real deal!

    You’re spot on about practice. Fanfic is a safe place to learn craft, if you’re so minded.

    To follow up on your final comment: Not surprisingly, the best fanfic (in my opinion, at least) is precisely the reimagining variety — AU, alternative universe in fanficspeak. I have seen Star Wars AUs which are so well done that I can’t imagine their authors would want the stories to remain in that ghetto. But many people simply like having an automatic, receptive audience that shares their basic premises. Judging from the responses that original online fiction gets (barely any), they have a point!

  6. intrigued_scribe says:

    Wonderfully written as always, and spot on with every point.

    I’ve also found that alternative universe fanfics are among the most outstanding, and where reponses to that are concerned, there’s more familiarity present in it than what original online fiction might have while retaining the sense and scale of worldbuilding, among other factors. Of course, that’s just my take. 🙂

  7. Athena says:

    I agree with you, Heather. And, of course, if not for my brief sojourn in fanfiction, I wouldn’t have met you, Kathryn, Marie or Eloise.  The lovely artwork that graces the gallery and my walls would never have been created nor would I have formed these wonderful friendships.

  8. I have always found fanfic a truly tragic phenomemon (except for slash, which is ludicrous). I’ve heard it said that some good authors got their start there, but I think a parallel is that nearly every poet I know sent at least one submission to when they were starting out, not knowing any better (sadly, I’m one of them). I hate it when authors I like waste their energies with “novelizations” of films or tv series. Parody, however, is a whole ‘nother animal, and something that I have a major weakness for! I think part of fanfic stems from the writer’s expectation that they have no ability to create something valuable independently, on its own merits, and this is the tragic aspect. The other aspect results, as Thomas Disch pointed out, from SF functioning as a preadolescent wish-fulfillment or escapist literature: these people have found a story they like and want it never to end. So they add more to it themselves.

  9. Athena says:

    Jeannie, I agree with you that the tragic aspect of fanfic is lack of confidence. I consider Tom Disch’s The Dreams Our Stuff is Made of a major book.

  10. Eloise says:

    I’ve read all of your comments with great interest, and I agree that the world of fanfiction today can be easily thought of as reductive in its scope and possibilities, more so if you consider the literal “drop in the ocean” any fanfiction work is, what with the multiplication of communication channels and the preponderance of the ephemeral (the epitome of which is the fast-shifting world of Internet).

    However, I would like to point out that some of what is now considered literature actually started as fanfiction. The most telling examples are the Tales of the Round Table. Authors such as Chrestien de Troyes compiled and revised the Arthurian material available, and reconstructed their tales as they saw fit, to create a well-rounded adventure pleasing to the audience. They took obscure Celtic myths and made them their own, hereby allowing their transmission to future generations. And indeed, without such works, some of the best artistic pursuits might not have been possible (from Purcell’s King Arthur to John Boorman’s Excalibur, with everything in-between such as Marion Zimmer Bradley’s re-imaginings). By the bye, let us not forget the mother of all fantasy, Tolkien’s Middle Earth saga, with Aragorn as a new Arthur, complete with mystical sword and otherworldy bride. Fanfiction is akin to writing a sonnet: you have a set of parameters, and the better your skill, the more aptly you will bend them to your own purposes.

    For me, the problem does not lie in fanfiction itself but on the stranglehold of copyright. While it is true that due recognition should and must be encouraged (especially, but not exclusively, in the world of academia), the very narrow criteria of copyright as we know it is actually restrictive to many artistic pursuits. With the merchandising of art and its by-products, the notion that you could quantitatively “own” a piece of art has sprung forth, and with it the “illegality” of any artistic expression which would derive from the purported original work. So, of course, those artistic expressions found another outlet, and in the case of fanfiction, the world of Internet.

    After all, one would thing that the likes of Mr. Lucas would have enough money by now and not need so much more. In such a case, why not be a tad more flexible and let the readership decide on its own which stories are gems and which are drivel? “Canon” is only so definite as the copyright holder makes it, as, for example, the Superman or Spiderman series show: there are so many, and most of them contradict each other at some point, so each fan can decide which they want to follow.

    Art nourishes art. The most talented have to be able (and be encouraged) to nourish their artform without fear of censure (yet criticism must always be welcome). Perhaps some brave authors amongst them will create their own worlds, and I wish them all the best in their arduous and commendable efforts. And perhaps some will not. But their contribution need not be any less valid.


    Eloise 🙂

  11. Athena says:

    Eloise, I totally agree with your first point, as the following sentences in the essay demonstrate: “Many respectable artworks are de facto fanfic of works whose copyright has expired (Milton’s Paradise Lost and Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead come to mind, as does West Side Story – not to speak of Romeo and Juliet itself).” and “Good fanfic is on par with published work.” You provided additional examples and, of course, the palimpsests of all the bards’ and balladeers’ songs also belong on the list.

    You’re right, Lucas doesn’t need the money. Most authors do, however, and copyright guarantees their livelihood. My point is that if people who write good fanfiction were paid for it, or if they put their talent into writing original fiction (which can include variations on known tales), we’d all be richer, literally and metaphorically!

  12. Eloise says:


    Allow me to make a parallel to explain what I referred to as the “stranglehold of copyright”. I do not exactly remember the specifics, but I do remember that in recent years there was a court case betweeen two famous pop singers about a musical phrase that found itself in their respective songs within a relatively short span of time. Both argued that the other had copied their work and should be punished accordingly.

    When I was in the Big Apple last fall, I came across a rather interesting exhibition in the Morgan Library, about Chopin and Liszt’s musical friendship. In it, we could see (and hear) their Variations on a Theme by Paganini. Also, we could see that they kept borrowing musical phrases from the other in a sheer contest of genius and skill. Evidently, if they kept going at it, it meant that they actually enjoyed the creative challenge.

    To use a favourite expression, there are only so many notes on the keyboard, and we’ve about deconstructed music as much as we possibly could, so by now musical phrases and such are bound to repeat themselves at some point.

    And while I fully agree and comprehend the fact that copyright is indeed the lifeblood of a great majority of authors, let’s just be mature enough to gracefully aknowledge that a great idea is bound to be exploited. I am sure that people of good will could come to a respectable compromise in that area.


    Eloise 🙂

  13. Asakiyume says:

    One part made me laugh: Each fandom, an accretion around the kernel of its inspiration, combines the custom-bound outlook of an insular tribe with the hothouse atmosphere of a girls’ boarding school. –such an apt way of putting it. I read it out loud to my older son, who laughed and said it was exactly true.

    Inhabiting someone else’s universe is inherently constricting even if the author creates rebellious alternative versions of that universe. –Yes! This is why I’ve never wanted to write it, really.

    And the feedback in fanfiction, always positive, creates the potential for emotional addiction, the craving for ever more uncritical admiration. –Oh my goodness yes, the addictiveness of positive feedback. It’s so wonderful to have someone say they like something … and scary to realize that one can come to crave those remarks. Yikes. That’s a truth it’s very hard to face.

  14. Athena says:

    Fandoms are treasure troves for anthropologists! *laughs*

  15. Dylan Fox says:

    I think some of the attitudes towards fan-fic and tie-ins comes down to the fact that fan-fic doesn’t have any ‘gate keepers’. Professionally published works need to go through editors and publishers and the assumption is that this makes them better. People who write tie-ins probably feel the need to make it known that they’ve managed to convince someone to invest money in the story they’re telling.

    Of course, those gate keepers are no real guarantee of quality. I just really wish people wouldn’t be so picky about protecting their intellectual properties. Like you say, the way stories grow is through re-telling and adaption. And hell, there’s only two stories after all 🙂

  16. Athena says:

    Very true. At the same time, to pretend that the gatekeepers exclusively — hell, even primarily — consider quality is to ignore obvious facts: if they did, we’d be spared doorstopper sequels and xeroxes of awful books that became unexpected bestsellers (The da Vinci Code… Twilight…)